Maximum Fly Reel Drag....Does it Matter?
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
When shopping for a new fly reel, what features and specifications do you typically put at the top of your list? The basic cosmetics, weight, and type of drag system are likely three big ones, but does an extremely strong drag factor in for you as well?
I remember a baitcasting reel several years back where the company actively marketed its robust maximum drag power. Now, I'm sure other companies were doing it beforehand (especially ones making big conventional saltwater reels...which I pay little attention to), but that was the first time I noticed such a quality really being touted as a top feature. Boasting 20 or so pounds of drag capability, it was impressive for sure, but I thought to myself "who really needs that in a reel like this?" Fast forward some years later, and nowadays I know of several reels on both the conventional and fly sides that come equipped with whopping drag strength.
If a fly reel can produce, say, 20 or 30 pounds of drag pressure, could you actually ever use that much power? The short answer is yes, but it obviously depends on the targeted species as well as your equipment. You also have to factor in what you're comfortable with and capable of. Actually using that much drag even for a short amount of time can be very taxing on both you and your gear.
I have fly fished a ton in saltwater, but my fishing has never required extreme drag settings. It's also my preference to fight fish using a more modest drag setting and apply any additional necessary pressure by using my fingers or palm along the spool rim, or pinning the line against the rod grip as I pull. I've had no problems quickly whipping fish like tarpon and big Florida false albacore while doing this, and that lighter drag keeps the rod from getting jolted or twisted out of my hand when initially clearing the line or if a fish suddenly bolts around the engine or under the boat. I hate screwing with the drag dial much during the fight, so I find that modest setting allows me to either "set it and forget it" or I might just fine tune a couple clicks in either direction at some point. I am not fishing light tippets for these species, either.
Even smaller fly reels can be pretty dang powerful these days, yet others can have relatively weak drag systems, producing only a few pounds of pressure at the max. When line is pulled straight off the reel this may not seem like much stopping power, but it feels much different when pulling line off the end of a bent rod. Pressure also slowly increases as more line leaves the spool because the usable line diameter on the spool is shrinking. That second point is especially true when targeting long-running fish using a fly reel with a deeper spool.
You can definitely whip some big fish with just moderate pressure provided you have good fish-fighting technique and use your hand to smoothly apply additional line tension if needed—something you should know how to do anyway. You don't always need gobs of pressure to bring a big fish to hand. Also remember, a major consideration for setting your drag is the strength of your tippet. You won't be fishing 10-pounds of drag when using 8-pound test! From what I've seen, folks commonly like to set their drags around 1/4 to 1/3 of the breaking strength of their line as a starting point.
With all of this said, an ultra-strong drag system could be useful or absolutely mandatory in some scenarios.
Anglers chasing giant trevally would be a perfect example here. When hooked up, trevally often make very powerful runs and anglers may need to initially have an extreme drag setting to keep them from shooting into nearby rocks and reefs. By keeping a low rod angle (so the rod doesn't snap), maxing out the drag, and fishing a very stout leader and fly line, an incredible amount of stopping power can be put on those fish. Have you ever seen RIO's Tropical GT fly line? It has a 70-pound core for a reason!
Beyond trevally, an extreme drag setting could be useful to dial-in any time you're chasing powerful fish provided you and your tackle can take the punishment. Think big tarpon, tuna, sharks, or big bottomfish—anytime you might want to slow a big fish ASAP while using a heavy setup. That much torque might not always be needed to get the job done right, but there's no downside to having a reel with extreme capabilities just in case you need to hang on and keep a fish out of trouble.
Make no mistake, it's impressive how strong some fly reel drags are, but for my fishing right now I care much more about a reel's drag setup and quality. By that, I mean that I prefer it to be fully sealed and most definitely want it to start up and flow smoothly as line is pulled. When reviewing fly reels, out of curiosity I always like to test and publish each reel's approximate maximum drag capability, but most people will likely never need to fully max out their reels, let alone those that produce insane amounts of stopping power. If you do, then I am envious—I want to catch what you're catching!
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